I, too, sing America. 

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong. 

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America. 

I, Too, Sing America – Langston Hughes  


On Monday, as many others did, I sat in front of the television to watch President Obama get sworn in for the second time. As I sat, a strange feeling of ambivalence came over me. For a brief moment, I was able to feel some invisible sense of camaraderie with the rest of the nation as an American. I watched as Obama gave his speech set against the backdrop of fluttering American flags, as Beyonce sang the national anthem, as the cameras flicked along the faces of Michelle Obama and Sasha and Malia, and I too suddenly felt as if I had a stake in this country not merely as a Black man, but as an American. Of course, the feeling was fleeting, and I know too much about America to give the feeling much credence, but I cannot help but wonder: to what extent has Obama’s election altered African-Americans relationship to their own country?

I am not talking about anything akin to post-racial. Because the term “American” has been, and still largely remains, synonymous with “white,” any notion of Black people recognizing their Americanness gets regarded as assimilatory. I am not asking whether or not African-Americans now have a greater ability to become raceless, because of course this is not the point, nor the reality, but what I am talking about is reconciliation. As Black Americans, we live in a country where we are consistently othered, where we are positioned as the enemy, and where we see very little true and substantive reflections of ourselves within the national consciousness.  So while “African-American,” is a politically correct and institutional term, it holds very little salience for many Black Americans who identify with “Black” before they would care to identify with any notion of American.

But as I watched Obama, glittering in the mythology of America, I couldn’t help but think of many of our historical figures. People who fought for our opportunity to lay claim to a country that essentially our ancestors built. And of course there were many other figures that most certainly wanted no part to do with America and they are valid too. But as I watched Obama peculiarly get sworn in on both MLK and Lincoln’s Bible, I wondered what it would mean for African-Americans to lay claim to the terms on both sides of the hyphen. Yes, we are still impacted by vast economic and social disparities, yes this is a country ruled by “white, sexist, hetero-patriarchs.” But at the end of the day, this is also the country I was born in, this is the country I know, and my ancestors fought for the rights to be equal participants in this country. I am American. What would it mean for Black Americans to take ownership of that statement, while still contending with the various forces in this country that works to undermine it?

Obama is not messiah. He is a not a fulfillment of a dream. He is merely a historical curveball that has only opened a flood for more confusion, ambivalence, and hope. But I am eager to see how his presence might have changed African-Americans conception of themselves as truly both Black and American. If it indeed has done anything at all.